9 Elements of Enjoyment

by Starla J. King on May 7, 2014

Turns out that creativity is necessary for our survival, and enjoyment is the essential fuel.

It’s not just a nice-to-have, metaphoric frolic of fancy in a field of flowers.  Nope.  Creativity is a main ingredient in the evolution of culture, and without evolution, we have no adaptation, and without adaptation, we have … uh oh… insufficient means of survival.

I’d love to say I came up with this all by myself, but this idea is the brainchild of psychologist / researcher / professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (let’s just call him Mihaly, shall we??), from his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

Mihaly suggests that we humans have two opposite, competing, and very necessary drives: 1) the drive to design or discover something new, and 2) the drive to conserve energy (“the force of entropy”).  The pull towards creating and discovering keeps us open to adaptation (and therefore survival), while entropy (in appropriate doses) counteracts that drive by kicking in just in time for us not to kill ourselves by literally never resting in our quest for the new, exciting, and novel. 

And enjoyment is the crucial motivating factor in either drive.  Huh. 

Luckily for us, Mihaly has done extensive research on the elements that make up and lead to this multi-faceted thing we call enjoyment.  Some of the elements are more directly under our control, while others we can only set the environment and scenarios and hope (and believe) they will show up.  In either case, an awareness of these elements has a chance to lead to a positive shift in our experience.

So, I offer you Mihaly’s 9 Main Elements of Enjoyment, in service of your creativity… and survival.

1. There are clear goals every step of the way.

This is a tricky one for creative work, so … get creative about it.  Is it a specific word count? A set amount of time? A clear product? Or maybe it’s just to be diligent about following your intuition.

2. There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.

With creative work, this feedback task is often in the creator’s court during the creating process.  Know thyself.  Know thy own definition and criteria for good work, and apply it.

3. There is a balance between challenges and skills.

“In a really enjoyable game,” Mihaly says, “the players are balanced on the fine line between boredom and anxiety.”  Same goes for enjoyable creative work.

4. Action and awareness are merged.

In other words, we’re fully focused on what we’re doing. This is what happens when we are diligent with #1 – 3.

5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness.

There are all sorts of ways to remove distractions (throw your cell phone out the window, disconnect from the Internets, work in a big black box), but Mihaly nails it with one thing: concentrate on the present, to the exclusion of everything else.  How?  Throw your cell phone out the window… etc.

6. There is no worry of failure.

This results from #1-5.

7. Self-consciousness disappears.

When we get thoroughly engrossed in creating (through #1-6), we lose awareness of our self, often in combination with a feeling of joining with something beyond ourselves. “Paradoxically,” Mihaly says, “the self expands through acts of self-forgetfulness.”  

8. The sense of time becomes distorted.

Hours pass in what feels like minutes (you look up and the sunshine of late morning somehow became dusk in a seeming instant); seconds pass in what feels like slow motion (a dancer executing a flawless move, for example).  Again, this is the result of all the other elements of enjoyment working together.

9. The activity becomes autotelic.

(It’s ok, I had to look it up too).  The activity itself provides us enjoyment, not as a means to an end, but just for the sake of doing the activity.  “There is no reason for doing them except to feel the experience they provide.” This happens when all the enjoyment stars align (see #1-8).

Mihaly elements of enjoyment

Why do we care at all about these elements of enjoyment?  Because they’re kinda cool, sure, but also because maybe if we know those elements, we can tweak our habits and processes to impact our experience of the work we’re doing.

Maybe we can lead ourselves into that magical state of flow.

Maybe we can enjoy ourselves right on into our next Great Work. 


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Erin Kouvas May 12, 2014 at 3:03 pm

Love and admiration. Clap, clap, clap… Love your work.


Starla J. King May 12, 2014 at 5:53 pm

…and there, Erin, is wonderful “feedback to one’s actions.” THANK YOU!


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